Tag Archives: Jean-Claude Juncker

Juncker’s vision for the future of Europe

In 2014 I was rooting for the election of Jean-Claude Juncker, considering him to be the best candidate to succeed the less than dynamic and imaginative José Manuel Barroso. He was known as a strong supporter of a more integrated Europe, which I consider a must if the European Union wants to survive and play a political role commensurate with its size and economic importance. Twenty-six of the 28 prime ministers and heads of states voted for him. There were only two prime ministers who didn’t: David Cameron of the United Kingdom and Viktor Orbán of Hungary.

I guess I was hoping for some quick policy changes that would indicate a tighter European ship, but what followed was crisis after crisis: 2015 saw another Greek bailout and the refugee crisis, and in 2016 the British voted to leave the European Union. Juncker’s tenure didn’t look like a success.

It seems, however, that quietly, in the background, the commission president managed to achieve 80% of what he and his team proposed for the 2014-2019 period. A senior commission official told Politico that on areas outside the commission’s tradition purview, like security and defense, “We’ve done more in six months than in the last 60 years, that’s all him.” Brexit last summer was the low point for the European Union, but since then some of the EU’s woes have subsided. A lot fewer migrants are arriving on the continent, Greece’s bailout seems to be working, and populist voices have quieted after a number of national elections. The Eurozone’s economy has been steadily growing, and unemployment, although still high, is back to its 2009 level.

Photo: Patrick Hertzog / AFP

Unless one is a keen observer of the European Union, these accomplishments are often swamped by the petty quarrels initiated by the Visegrád 4 countries. As Zsolt Kerner of 24.hu put it, “From Hungary the exact state of the European Union is distorted because of the government propaganda,” but the Juncker administration’s accomplishments are considerable.

Until now Juncker hasn’t made any effort to outline his vision for a more closely integrated Europe. But today he put forth some startlingly innovative proposals that could, if adopted, fundamentally change the very nature of the European Union. Leonid Bershidsky, a Russian journalist who works in Ukraine nowadays, wrote an opinion piece in Bloomberg in which he sympathizes with Juncker’s plans but notes that there are quite a few important European politicians, for example Angela Merkel and Emmanuel Macron, who will most likely oppose a structure which, although “the word wasn’t uttered, … would be a federation.”

A summary of Juncker’s speech can be found on Euronews.com, and therefore there is no need to cover the whole speech here. Instead, I will concentrate on those items that speak directly to Juncker’s vision of a United States of Europe. First, as opposed to Merkel and Macron who would like to see a two-speed Europe or a core-Europe of countries using the euro as their currency and the periphery of countries mostly found in the eastern half of the continent, Juncker wants all countries, with the exception of Denmark which is exempt, to adopt the euro as they promised at the time of their adherence to the Union. He would entice the countries whose leaders are hesitant to take the step with generous financial incentives for the transitional period. Once there is a common currency, the Union should have its own common minister of finance in charge of the economy. That person could be one of the commissioners, who would also be one of the vice presidents of the commission. One reason for the Hungarian government’s hesitancy to join the Eurozone is Viktor Orbán’s reluctance to lose the independent Hungarian central bank, which has been the source of all sorts of questionable financial moves benefiting his government. Once in the Eurozone, the head of the Hungarian National Bank would just be one of the members of the European Central Bank.

In order to achieve “a Union of states and a Union of citizens,” he proposed merging the functions of the presidents of the European Commission and the European Council. This is an excellent idea not only because, as he put it, “Europe would be easier to understand if one captain was steering the ship” but because it would also make for less friction between the nation states and the center. Apparently, the idea is not new. In fact, the Lisbon Treaty’s wording intentionally allowed for such a merger in the future. This single president would be elected in a pan-European campaign with transnational lists. Juncker didn’t elaborate on how this would work, and it is not at all clear whether even his own party, EPP, would support such pan-EU lists. Optimistically, he believes that he will be able “to convince the leaders of [his] parliamentary group to try to follow this idea.” Juncker’s powers of persuasion are said to be extraordinary because he is able to change even Angela Merkel’s mind.

He also proposed that the new office of the EU chief prosecutor, which until now was supposed to have jurisdiction only over EU financial matters, would from here on get involved in the fight against terrorism. Hungary was one of the countries which for obvious reasons refused to accept the idea of an EU prosecutor’s office, but perhaps if the office is also involved with terrorism it would be more difficult to turn against the proposal.

Finally, Juncker suggested getting away from the need for unanimity in the decision-making process. Again, this is a complicated affair, but there would be a way via the so-called “passarelle clauses” in the current treaties, which would allow the process to move from unanimity to qualified majority voting in certain areas, provided all heads of state and government agree to do so. Juncker insists on using this tool in decisions on taxation and foreign policy.

There are practically no Hungarian opinion pieces on the Juncker speech yet, but Magyar Idők published an MTI report under the headline “Juncker promises a more united and more democratic union.” MTI reports are not supposed to add comments to its press releases, and therefore I was quite surprised to read that “this 70-minute speech by Jean-Claude Juncker has been so far his most considered and most measured state of the union speech, which was welcomed by the majority of the members of the EP delegations.” I really wonder who is responsible for this sentence.

Some of Juncker’s suggestions would remedy problems the European Union has been battling for many years. If a common currency, common army, and common financial policy were to become a reality, the EU would be on its way to being considered a sovereign entity. Of course, there would still be the question of a common foreign policy, but one cannot expect such giant steps. I’m sure there will be many who will find even that much hard to swallow.

September 13, 2017

Felcsút: The forbidden village for EP “bureaucrats”

Let’s return to Viktor Orbán’s choo-choo train, which runs between the two villages where the Hungarian prime minister spent his first 14 years. In his childhood this narrow-gauge railroad was still functioning, but because of insufficient traffic MÁV, the state railway company, scrapped the line sometime in the 1970s. Apparently Viktor Orbán had fond memories of that train, and once he had the opportunity he decided to revive it. His own Puskás Academy Foundation launched the project. It purchased and renovated the old run-down train station and bought newly refurbished cars and an engine. The project was declared to be of premier importance as far as Hungary’s economy was concerned. This designation was necessary in order to skip the otherwise requisite public tender procedures. It was supposed to be a great tourist attraction, with thousands of passengers.

By the time it was finished the train project had cost 3 million euros, 2 million of which was provided by the European Union as part of a 652.5 million euro package given for the development of the counties of Veszprém, Komárom-Esztergom, and Fejér. In June 2016 The Telegraph reported that OLAF, EU’s anti-fraud agency, was investigating the train, but that turned out to be a false alarm. Still, the Felcsút complex with its 3,500-seat soccer stadium only yards from Orbán’s weekend house and now a railroad going from nowhere to nowhere raised eyebrows in Brussels.

All that didn’t deter Viktor Orbán, who reportedly planned to extend the 5.7 km line, perhaps hoping that the number of passengers could be increased this way. The Hungarian government had promised between 2,500 and 7,000 passengers daily to justify the investment, but according to 444.hu, in its first month of operation Orbán’s choo-choo train attracted only 900 passengers–that is, only 30 a day. By October 2016 there were days when the train had no passengers at all. A few days ago atlatszo.hu published figures it acquired from the Puskás Academy. Since its first run on April 30, 2016, the academy reported, 48,533 people used the train. Last year 30,219, and so far this year 18,314. During that period, the railroad accumulated a 4.1 million forint loss. These dismal figures didn’t seem to bother János Lázár. In his opinion, if 20,000 people use the train, it is a profitable undertaking. Strange accounting, I must say.

From the start questions were raised both at home and in Brussels about the efficacy of this project, and therefore it was not entirely unexpected that the Budgetary Control Committee (CONT) of the European Parliament, whose fact-finding delegation will be visiting Hungary between September 18 and 20, put the Felcsút train on its agenda, alongside the huge Metro 4 construction project. Once János Lázár learned that the delegation would like to see Felcsút in all its glory, he hit the ceiling. Or, to be more precise, it was most likely Viktor Orbán who hit the ceiling. Lázár was just assigned the dirty work of fighting it out with the chair of the committee, Ingeborg Gräßle.

I have the feeling that Lázár/Orbán made a huge mistake when they decided to take on Grässle. She has been a member of the European Parliament since 2004 and is considered to be especially influential. She is known as a strong advocate of increased transparency and accountability. And, as we will see, she is no pushover. Occasionally one has the feeling that Fidesz politicians think they can intimidate foreigners as easily as they do their “subjects.” But Grässle is an especially forbidding opponent.

In any case, Lázár wrote a letter to the chair of CONT on August 9. In it, he complained that the committee was not following Hungary’s suggested list of projects and accused the committee of setting up a program of its own, which is “strongly politically motivated.” Politico quoted the following passages from his August 9 letter: “I found it outrageous that a committee of the European parliament systematically ignores and rejects a notable amount of suggestions of the Hungarian government, thus significantly interferes in the Hungarian [election] campaign.” He especially criticized the committee’s decision to include a trip to “the home village of the Prime Minister Viktor Orbán.” Grässle wasn’t impressed. She refused to change the fact-finding mission’s travel plans and politely assured Lázár that “there is no bias either behind the choice of the date of our mission or of the projects. The Budgetary Control Committee will conduct its visit in a politically neutral way, as we always do.”

Perhaps if at that point Lázár had just backed off he wouldn’t have gotten himself and the government he represents into hot water, as he ultimately did. On September 4 he wrote another letter, in the same manner as the first. Both letters struck some members of CONT as uncouth. And, further pressing their case, the Hungarian government instructed the Hungarian ambassador to the European Union to plead with Grässle to change the list of projects to be visited, or to postpone the whole visit until after the election in 2018. Grässle apparently told the ambassador that the budgetary control committee “does not accept political interference in the way it organizes its work of controlling the implementation of the budget.”

Ingeborg Grässle subsequently fired off two letters: one to Antonio Tajani, president of the European Union, and another to Jean-Claude Juncker, president of the European Commission. In her letter to Tajani she wrote: “I disapprove of the attitude to exert pressure on an EP parliamentary body with regard to the organization of a mission as well as with regards to its content.” She added that Lázár’s choice not to cooperate means that he does not comply—”in political or in legal terms”—with the requirements of mutual sincere cooperation, which is a basic rule among the institutions and member states. She considered the case so serious that she suggested to Tajani that he raise the issue with Juncker.

There is no question in my mind that it was Viktor Orbán who found the visit to Felcsút a personal attack on him by an EU body and tried to use next spring’s election as an excuse. But it backfired. As Grässle put it: “We are important but not that important.” Surely, it wasn’t the election that bothered the Lord of Felcsút. He simply didn’t want anyone from Brussels to see the place. As we know, anyone who tries to take pictures anywhere near the stadium is usually met with scores of policemen. And this case is more than the usual curious journalists trying to get close to his little empire. It is a group of European politicians who will see that whole grotesque scene Orbán managed to create in that “miserable village,” as Tamás Deutsch called it.

Orbán, with the assistance of Lázár, cast his regime in the worst possible light. One’s first response, which Grässle most likely shares, is: “These guys must have something to hide.” By the way, I wonder what the plans are for the day when the mission visits Felcsút. Will the Hungarian government order out thousands of people to ride their choo-choo train? Anything is possible in that Potemkin village called Hungary.

September 9, 2017

Another peacock dance: Orbán’s reversal on the verdict of the European Court of Justice

Yesterday I dealt with the exchange of letters between Jean-Claude Junker and Viktor Orbán concerning Orbán’s demand for EU reimbursement of half the cost of the fence the Hungarian government erected along the Serbian-Hungarian border. The Hungarian demand raised eyebrows in Europe and elsewhere, so Hungary was again in the international news.

The other reason for the preoccupation of the international media with Hungary was the long-awaited verdict of the European Court of Justice on the legality of the EU decision on the relocation of 120,000 asylum seekers. Slovakia and Hungary claimed that the decision-making process was illegal. Two days ago, on September 6, the Union’s top court dismissed the complaints of the two countries, dealing a blow to Viktor Orbán.

Slovak Prime Minister Robert Fico immediately reacted to the verdict, saying that “we fully respect the verdict of the European Court of Justice,” adding, however, that his government’s view on the relocation plan “has not changed at all.” Viktor Orbán, on the other hand, remained silent. In his place, Péter Szijjártó, minister of foreign affairs and trade, and László Trócsányi, minister of justice, gave a joint press conference, where the foreign minister vented. He called the ruling “outrageous and irresponsible.” In his opinion, the verdict endangers the security and future of Europe and is contrary to the interest of the countries of the Union, including Hungary. “Politics raped the European law and European values,” he claimed. He announced that “the real battle begins only now,” and he promised that the Hungarian government “will use all the remedies available at its disposal” to prevent similar central decision-making for Hungary.

Trócsányi was no less belligerent when he announced that the Hungarian government will start a new legal debate. Since he liked the phrase “the real battle begins only now,” he repeated it. He didn’t go so far as to accuse his fellow judges of acting politically, but he charged that they were preoccupied with the case’s formal aspects and neglected its contextual qualities. The case was thrown out in its entirety, but Trócsányi still praised the excellent legal work of his team. The legal arguments presented to the court were outstanding, and therefore he was quite surprised by the outcome. Trócsányi also indicated that Hungary will not have to take the 1,294 migrants because the case was only about the legality of the decision-making process.

Péter Szijjártó and László Trócsányi / MTI-MTVA / Photo Szilárd Koszticsek

In brief, it looked as if the Orbán government was prepared to go against the ruling and suffer the consequences. A day later, on September 7, this impression was reinforced by János Lázár at his regular “government info” press conference where he interpreted the decision of the European Court of Justice as an opportunity for the European Commission to allow “Brussels” to meddle in Hungary’s internal affairs. “We will use every legal instrument to preserve the independence of the country.” Zoltán Balog, minister of human resources, also chimed in and, in an interview with Deutschlandfunk, repeated Szijjártó’s accusation of a politically motivated and irresponsible decision on the part of the European Court of Justice. Everybody suspected, including naturally Viktor Orbán, that Slovakia and Hungary would lose the case, and therefore the word probably came down from above some time ago about what the proper reaction to the verdict should be.

After two days of criticism of the court and its verdict, Viktor Orbán came out with an entirely different approach to the question. In his Friday morning “interview” on Magyar Rádió he said: “Hungary is a member of the European Union. The affairs of the Union, its internal power relations are settled by the Treaty, so contracts have to be respected. Consequently, one must take cognizance of the verdicts of the courts. Hungarian is a sophisticated, refined language and therefore it does matter with what kind of word we react to a verdict, especially when we are functioning in a hostile Europe. I decided to use the word “tudomásul venni” which I took over from Slovak Prime Minister Fico.” Unfortunately, I don’t know what Slovak word Fico used when talking about his reaction to the verdict. English translations of Fico’s press conference use the verb “to respect” which, unfortunately, is not the equivalent of “tudomásul venni,” which might be better translated as “to take cognizance of.” However, I’m sure that some readers of Hungarian Spectrum will provide us with the the Slovak word that Fico used as well as with the best translation of the Slovak equivalent of “tudomásul venni.” Then we will be able to see whether Orbán and Fico are talking about the same thing or not.

Orbán’s interview was long, during the course of which he said many uncomplimentary things about the European Union, but at the end he came up with some startling statements. The interviewer reminded him that the politicians of the European Union consider the Polish refusal to abide by a court verdict as preparation for the country’s exit from the Union. If Orbán keeps talking about his “fight,” this communication may lead to the interpretation that Hungary is also planning to leave the Union behind. Here is Orbán’s answer: “Communication is interesting and in politics is often important, but it does not replace reality…. Hungarian reality is that the Hungarian people decided after a referendum to join the European Union. That decision was a correct one. No political decision can overwrite that decision. A popular referendum was held, and therefore no government action can reverse that determination. It was the Hungarian people’s choice, and that’s right and well.”

Although Szijjártó, who is in Tallin at the moment, expressed his trust in the unity of the Visegrád Four, there are signs that Slovakia and the Czech Republic are not ready to sacrifice themselves for Poland and Hungary. The weak link, I believe, is Slovakia. I heard an interview with Pál Csáky, a Slovak member of the European Parliament, who surprised me to no end with his condemnation of the Orbán government’s attitude toward the European Union. The reason for my surprise was that Csáky was Fidesz’s favorite among Hungarian ethnic politicians in Slovakia back in 2010. Lots of money was poured into Csáky’s party, the Magyar Koalíció Pártja (MKP), against Béla Bugár of Híd/Most. Despite the funding, MKP didn’t even manage to get enough votes to become a parliamentary party. Csáky at this point resigned. Today he made it clear that Slovakia will not follow Orbán’s suicidal strategy. Slovakia is all for the European Union.

There is another reason that Orbán may have changed his mind. The spokesman of the European People’s Party delivered a message to Viktor Orbán: don’t go against the ruling of the court because this verdict gives an opportunity to heal the wounds caused by the recent conflict between the member states. “The unanimous opinion of the party is that Slovakia and Hungary comply with the rules.”

Otherwise, Jean-Claude Juncker is ready to have a chat with Viktor Orbán, but his spokesman reminded his audience as well as Viktor Orbán that the position of the European Commission is explained in Juncker’s letter to Orbán. It is available for everybody to read and, in any case, the Commission is not in habit of verbal ping pong. Given Juncker’s firmness as expressed in his letter, I would not advise Orbán to continue to press his case.

September 8, 2017

Viktor Orbán on solidarity and financial assistance

In happier times Hungary wasn’t a prolific source of sensational news items for the international press. With the appearance of Viktor Orbán on the political scene in 2010, however, hardly a day goes by without some juicy story about what the Hungarian prime minister is up to. The avalanche of news items on Hungary at the moment is more impressive than usual. There are two reasons for this sudden interest in the country, and both are related to the “migrant issue.”

First, Viktor Orbán surprised Jean-Claude Juncker, president of the European Commission, with a letter in which he demanded a hefty contribution to the fence he unilaterally decided to build along the Serbian-Hungarian border in order to prevent refugees and migrants from using Hungary as a transit route toward Western Europe. Second, the European Court of Justice just dismissed complaints by Slovakia and Hungary about EU migration policy. This is considered to be an important victory for the European Union and a blow to Viktor Orbán and his allies in Eastern Europe.

Today let’s tackle the controversy that has developed since August 31 over the issue of the cost of the fence and Orbán’s monetary demands. I will stick closely to the texts of the letters exchanged between Juncker and Orbán. All three letters are available in their entirety.

“I am contacting you regarding the protection of the external borders of the European Union and European solidarity,” begins Viktor Orbán’s initial letter to Juncker. As far as he is concerned, “Hungary followed the Schengen rules requiring the protection of the external borders” all along, and by that act Hungary “is protecting not only itself, but the whole of Europe against the flood of illegal migrants.” Orbán claims that the cost and maintenance of the fence is 270 billion forints or €883,000,000, half of which should be paid by the European Union. He closed his letter by saying that “we agree that solidarity is an important principle of the European community. When Hungary had to protect the common external borders, we started with immediate action and not a request for help. I hope that, in the spirit of European solidarity, we can rightly expect that the European Commission, acting on behalf of Member States, will reimburse half of our extraordinary border protection expenses in the foreseeable future.”

It was unlikely that Orbán seriously expected a positive answer from the European Commission. In a sense, he gave himself away in that last paragraph when he admitted that Hungary “started with immediate action and not [with] a request for help.” It was the sovereign decision of the Hungarian government to go ahead and build a fence along the country’s southern border. As for the cost, both opposition politicians and journalists in Hungary are in total darkness when it comes to the real cost of the fence. Most suspect that the figures are greatly inflated.

Hungarian media commentators were certain from the very first moments after the announcement of the demand that the European Commission would not be impressed by Orbán’s arguments. It took only a few hours after the Hungarian government made the content of the letter public for the Commission’s spokesman to announce that the European Union is not “financing the construction of fences or barriers at the external borders.” As for Orbán’s appeal to European solidarity, the spokesman noted that “solidarity is a two-way street, and all member states should be ready to contribute. This is not some sort of à la carte menu where you pick one dish.” The spokesman then summarized all the benefits Hungary received, for example “over €93 million in funding for Hungary, both from the EU’s Asylum, Migration and Integration Fund and the Internal Security Fund. It also awarded Hungary an additional €6 million in emergency funds.” He reminded his audience that in 2015 Hungary refused to be labeled a front-line state and rejected becoming a beneficiary country, like Greece and Italy. Instead, it opted to build a fence.

After this announcement on September 1, there could be little doubt that Jean-Claude Juncker’s reply to Viktor Orbán would be a firm rejection of the Hungarian prime minister’s specious reasoning. The tone of the letter, however, was polite and expressed an openness for cooperation if there is a willingness on the other side. First, he reminded Orbán of the events of 2015 when Hungary was greatly affected by the refugee crisis and the European Union proposed that an emergency relocation scheme would apply to Hungary, similarly to Italy and Greece. Hungary rejected this offer of “concrete solidarity, declining the possibility to benefit from relocation of up to 54,000 persons and decided to return nearly 4 million euros of EU funds pre-paid by the Commission.” Shortly after that, Hungary “challenged the validity of the Council decisions on relocation before the Court of Justice.”

Then came a list of all sorts of benefits Hungary received from the European Union in connection with the refugee crisis. The last item on the list was “another form of European solidarity [which is] represented by the EU’s regional funds. Hungary is the 8th largest beneficiary of the European Structural and Investment Funds in the period 2014-2020 with an allocation of 25 billion euros. This represents more than 3% of Hungary’s GDP annually, the highest of any Member State.”

Finally, Juncker “welcome[d] the call in [Orbán’s] letter for more Europe in the area of migration and border management.” He also assured him that he is “committed to working together with Hungary towards a more efficient and fairer European migration and asylum policy based on responsibility and solidarity.”

Yes, it was a polite letter, although it contained a fair description of the European Union’s objections to Viktor Orbán’s interpretation of solidarity. And there was one sentence in this fairly lengthy letter that must have sent Orbán into a rage, as we will see from his answer. That was Juncker’s reference to Hungary’s being the eighth largest beneficiary of the European Structural and Investment Funds. So, let’s turn to that crucial part of Viktor Orbán’s answer to Jean-Claude Juncker.

I would like to inform you that we are confounded by the part of your letter that creates a link between the question of immigration and cohesion funds. Such a relationship does not exist and is not permitted by the current EU acquis. According to the view of the Hungarian government, a significant part of the resources provided by Cohesion Funds landed at the companies of net contributor countries. The economies of major EU member states have thus greatly benefited from the use of cohesion funds, as they have benefited from opening the markets of new member states.

Viktor Orbán delivered a speech this morning in which he rejected the widely-held view that Hungary’s economic growth derives largely from the funds received from the European Union. I don’t have the complete text and therefore have to rely on MTI’s summary, but his argument was that Hungary’s yearly budget is 18,000 billion forints while the EU subsidies amount to only 1,000-1,500 forints. What Hungary has achieved in the last few years is “our success.” However, according to Péter Mihályi, a professor of economics, Orbán’s figures are wrong. Between 2006 and 2015, Hungary received 2,400 billion euros. During the same period the Hungarian economy grew by only 4.6%. Without the EU funds that figure would have been -1.8%.

Another topic that irritates Orbán is the European Union’s interpretation of solidarity. He didn’t elaborate on it, but he claims that Juncker’s “interpretation of solidarity is not in accordance with European Union legislation.” More critically, “it is not in accordance with Hungarian historic traditions either.” This difference in interpretation is explained by the fact that “in contrast some of the major member states of the EU, Hungary has no colonial past.” These countries, because of their colonial past, have become immigrant countries, but Hungary is not an immigrant country and does not want to become one. “The interpretation of the principle of solidarity described in your letter is in essence the transformation of Hungary into an immigrant country, against the will of the Hungarian citizens. In my view, this is not solidarity, this is violence.” Finally, Orbán said that he is “stunned and puzzled” that the European Commission refuses to provide funds for the fence. At the end he repeated his demand for half of the €883 million euros which, according to him, is the cost of the building and maintaining the 175 km fence.

Just a footnote to Viktor Orbán’s interpretation of solidarity. Last night, Zsolt Bayer, the anti-Semitic journalist of extreme political views, wrote an opinion piece for Magyar Idők that appeared in the early morning edition of the paper. He also argues that Hungary cannot be compared to countries that are situated in the West. Half of Western Europe countries, for certain periods of time, were colonial powers. These countries occupied large parts of the world where “they destroyed the culture and civilization they found. They killed the inhabitants; they carried away their treasures and raw materials. Those who survived were made slaves. This is the glorious history of the West. That’s how it became rich. That is how it became strong. It is from these treasures that they built their democracy. It is from this position that they began to look down on the people of Eastern and Central Europe who have never had any colonies. The people of those colonial empires are now going to their former slave owners and submitting a bill.”

So, the West is responsible in a way for the migration of the former slaves. They deserve what they get. And as for the financial assistance coming from the West, it is no sign of generosity because in the end all that money ends up in the pockets of western multinational companies. So, politicians of Western European countries have nothing to complain about. At least this is what Viktor Orbán thinks.

September 7, 2017

How strong is the Visegrád Four? According to some, it barely exists

Martin Mojžiš, professor at Comenius University in Bratislava, wrote an article recently with the title “How strong is V4?.” He came to the conclusion that “there is no V4, with a real political life, in reality.” Only recently Viktor Orbán claimed that the V4 is “strong as never before,” but Mojžiš’s opinion is that V4’s strength relies only on “strong words,” coming mostly from Viktor Orbán.

The ambassadors to the United States of the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland, and Slovakia got together the other day and gave a joint press conference which, according to Foreign Policy, is the only way for small countries to call attention to themselves. And yet, asks the author of the article, “Does anyone in the Trump administration care about the Visegrád 4?” The answer is “no.” I suspect that the gathering in the Hungarian Embassy’s Pulitzer Salon was initiated by the new Hungarian ambassador, László Szabó, former human resources director for the U.S. pharmaceutical company Eli Lilly. One of his jobs is to promote the concept and policies of the Visegrád Four in Washington. During the press conference the Czech ambassador conceded that to have the four countries act in concert is a “challenge.” For example, a meeting of representatives of the four countries’ foreign ministers was planned, but it never took place.

From left to right Ambassadors Hynek Kmoníček, László Szabó, Piotr Wilczek, Jozef Polakovič / Source: The Georgetown Dish

One reason for the U.S.’s lack of interest is the chaos that has reigned in Washington this year. But I suspect that even the State Department’s seasoned diplomats think that the Visegrád Four might not survive for long. Indeed, there are more and more signs of the regional alliance’s possible demise, which would be a major blow to Viktor Orbán, who considers the recent “revival” of the group his own handiwork. In fact, some people already in early July came to the conclusion that “Visegrád is dead” and that, in fact, “an anti-Orbán alliance is in the making in Central Europe.” This interpretation is a bit too Hungaro-centric for my taste, but there are indications that Orbán’s pride and joy is in trouble. For instance, the Czech Republic and Slovakia are reconsidering the efficacy of partaking in the fight of Poland and Hungary against the European Union. Thus, these two countries are looking for partners elsewhere. One result of this search is the Slavkov Triangle (S3) named after Slavkov, formerly known as Austerlitz, where the prime ministers of Austria, the Czech Republic, and Slovakia met at the end of June. More can be found on the Slavkov Triangle in my post “What awaits the Visegrád Four?”

A couple of months later, on August 15, Robert Fico backtracked from his previous euroskeptic position and distanced himself from Hungary and Poland when he announced that Slovakia’s place is in the deeply integrated “core” Europe. Fico announced that “the fundamentals of my policy are being close to the [EU] core, close to France, to Germany.” He added that he is “very much interested in regional cooperation within the Visegrád Four, but Slovakia’s vital interest is the EU.” One could foresee such a development earlier when Fico, after conferring with Jean-Claude Juncker, announced his willingness to accept 60 refugees. Moreover, of the four Visegrád countries it was only Slovakia against which the European Commission didn’t initiate infringement procedures for rejecting migrant quotas.

But that’s not all. The Czech Republic’s foreign minister Lubomír Zaorálek just announced, according to Reuters, that his country may try to get an observer seat at the Eurogroup of Eurozone finance ministers if the body’s decision-making powers are boosted under plans to reshape the European Union. Having an observer status would be beneficial to the Czech Republic, and it is unlikely that this attitude would change even if a new government wins the elections in October. All in all, there is a fairly rapid abandonment of the hard-line positions of Poland and Hungary by the Slovaks and Czechs.

A couple of weeks ago we learned that the prime ministers of S3 will gather in Salzburg on August 23, where they will meet the French president on his way to a three-day trip of some Central European countries. The topic will be “the future of Europe.” From Austria Macron will fly to Romania and Bulgaria. Hungary and Poland are not included in his itinerary. We don’t know whether Hungary tried to convince Macron to visit Budapest or not but, according to Politico, the Polish government tried its best to entice Macron to stop over in Warsaw but hey “didn’t see much willingness” on the part of the Élysée Palace. Perhaps Macron has given up on the two intransigent illiberal states, although French diplomats keep insisting that Macron has no intention of driving a wedge between the Central European nations that came together in this regional alliance.

Still, there is little doubt that the European Commission and the some of the Western European leaders would like to weaken the influence of Poland and Hungary over the Visegrád Four. Deutsche Welle’s reporter, for example, believes that “the EU is now eyeing Slovakia as a peacemaker,” a country that might be helpful in keeping Poland and Hungary at bay. Moreover, if the Czechs join “core” Europe, Hungary will certainly want to reconsider its relationship with “Brussels.” As we know from past experience, Polish-Hungarian friendship has its limits. Viktor Orbán will not hesitate to abandon Warsaw if he feels that it is no longer to his advantage to support the Polish position. Now that the summer is more or less over, I’m sure that exciting days are ahead of us, especially within the sphere of EU-Hungarian relations.

August 22, 2017

The Hungarian right and the Manchester terrorist attack

Every time there is a terrorist attack anywhere in Europe, the Hungarian government and Fidesz, besides sending the customary condolences to the appropriate authorities, immediately begin to use it as a political tool. From the statements emanating from various Fidesz quarters in the last two days, I came to the conclusion that the Manchester case has been singled out as an event that is the beginning of a new chapter in the history of terrorism in Europe. Péter Szijjártó’s statement labelled it “the most malicious terrorist attack” to date because young teenagers were likely to attend the concert. The Orbán government also declared the present terrorist threat in Europe the highest ever. European politicians should realize the danger and devote all their energy to making Europe a safe place.

Lajos Kósa, the leader of the Fidesz parliamentary delegation, was more forthright. He accused the European political leaders of blindness. They inexplicably “still don’t realize what’s happening on the European continent.” How many more people will have to die before they wake up? Terrorism doesn’t start with a “suicide bomber.” It starts when “terrorists illegally come to Europe and many people actually assist them.”

Bence Tuzson, undersecretary in charge of government communications in the prime minister’s office, gave an interview this morning on Magyar Rádió’s early morning political program. He emphasized “the close connection between immigration and terrorism.” Illegal immigration should not be “managed” but stopped. In this connection, he criticized Jean-Claude Juncker who, according to Tuzson, said: “Today is still a day of mourning, but from tomorrow on we must fight against those who question European values.” The real battle should be at the borders of Europe. “One shouldn’t preach about European values; the most important question is the security of the people.” Knowing Fidesz’s penchant for not being faithful to the original source, I looked at Juncker’s actual statement. Here is what the EU president had to say: “Today we mourn with you. Tomorrow we will work side by side with you to fight back against those who seek to destroy our way of life. They underestimate ours and [British] resilience—these cowardly attacks will only strengthen our commitment to work together to defeat the perpetrators of such vile acts.”

Members of the Fidesz propaganda media were also appalled by Juncker’s “clichés.” Mariann Őry, head of the foreign desk at Magyar Hírlap, who about a month ago wrote an article titled “Sorosjugend,” was especially upset over the phrase “those who seek to destroy our way of life.” Here is a man, says Őry, who allegedly is fighting against terrorism while he keeps kissing (puszilkodik) George Soros, the promoter of “unlimited immigration,” whose activities present “a significant security risk to Europe.”

Zsolt Bayer also devoted an editorial to the Manchester terrorist attack, in which he stressed the “utter predictability” of every one of these atrocities. People of Europe know what’s coming,“but we don’t do anything. We know that they have launched a war against us and we burn candles like drooling idiots.” The western half of Europe is “condemned to death if the citizens there tolerate it.” East of the former Berlin Wall people still have a sense of self-preservation, but in the West it is called a “violation of European values.” I think it is quite clear from these examples that references to European values or the European way of life get under the skin of far-right Fidesz scribblers and most likely of Fidesz politicians as well.

A third op-ed piece by Levente Sitkei, a journalist who wrote a book on Saudi Arabia, is especially offensive because, according to the author, “Salman didn’t die. He is still walking on the streets of Manchester, Liverpool, London, and Glasgow. He is standing on the street corner, a lonely savage [vadember] devoid of soul with rights but without responsibility and gratitude. No soldier or policeman can stop him because neither his family, fear of the authorities, neither humanity nor love of country can deter him.” These generalizations stoke fear in the hearts of Hungarians, far away from Manchester, living in a country where these “savages” are nowhere to be found.

Tibor Kovács, who works for the government propaganda site 888.hu, agrees with Sitkei. After praising Christian Europeans whose “whole culture is based on understanding and goodwill,” he writes that we must learn to forget about all these Christian virtues if “we want to remain alive.” There is no hope; these Muslim communities will never accept our values. In fact, “the longer they live among us the more likely it is that they will become our enemies, the more likely it is that they will identify with movements that threaten our lives.” And that’s not all. Kovács claims that “those currently peaceful Muslim taxpayers are potential enemies of European Christians, only waiting for the time to unveil their real identity.”

Vigyázó!, a fiercely anti-Muslim, pro-Israeli, pro-Trump site, translated into Hungarian an article written by Giulio Meotti, an Italian journalist who got into quite a bit of trouble about five years ago when he was caught lifting passages without attribution from other authors. He writes a column for Arutz Sheva, an Israeli media network “identifying with Religious Zionism.” This article is a stomach-turning piece. Europe must learn to respond forcefully to these attacks because “otherwise, Europe will reach the point where the soldiers of Allah will have to be hunted down, from door to door, as in Mosul and Raqqa.”

Meotti in this article repeats a theory that has gained traction of late in right-wing circles: the inability or unwillingness of European leaders to fight the Muslims stems from the fact that most of them have no children. “Is it possible that Europe’s leaders have chosen to avoid fighting because they are all childless? German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte, French President Emmanuel Macron, Swedish Prime Minister Stefan Löfven, Luxembourg’s Prime Minister Xavier Bettel, Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon, and the head of the European Commission, Jean Claude Juncker, have one thing is common: they are all childless.” Therefore “they don’t have the most powerful stake in the future of the country they lead. Having children and grandchildren influences the desire to ensure that they are given protection and the best chance to flourish in the future. Perhaps a childless leader is unable to see farther into the future, apart from his own life. Instead of children, Europeans have a weary death wish.”

The Hungarian right-wing media embraced the theory practically overnight. In addition to Vigyázó!, Mandiner, Pesti Srácok, althír.hu, and avilagma.com published opinion pieces on the childlessness of European political leaders. András Stumpf of Heti Válasz decided to counter the primitive argument that childless people don’t care about the future of mankind or the destiny of Europe. I’m sure, however, that the theory will spread like wildfire in Hungary where a decreasing population offers the specter of the possible extinction of Hungarians.

May 25, 2017

The Hungarian government media’s portraits of Macron

Two days ago, when I wrote a post about Emmanuel Macron’s victory in the French presidential election and its reception by the Hungarian government, I had rely on the relatively few analyses that appeared in the government media. They didn’t address most of the reforms Macron proposes but were preoccupied with his ire against the Polish and Hungarian governments and his support for a two-speed Europe, both of which concern Hungary directly. Still, the basic message was (and still is) that with Macron’s victory, everything will remain the same. The decline of Europe will continue. The French voted for the wrong person.

Macron has ambitious plans for revitalizing France, especially in economic terms, and even more ambitious ideas for restructuring the European Union. We don’t know whether any of Macron’s ideas will materialize, but nothing is further from the truth than that Macron is a man who is stuck in the present. Here are a few of Macron’s ideas for the Eurozone, premised on a two-speed Europe, as outlined in the Eurobserver. He would like to see a Eurozone parliament, finance minister, and budget, which we already know Germany’s finance minister, Wolfgang Schäuble, opposes. Jean-Claude Juncker doesn’t seem supportive of Macron’s plans either. He warned that “not all euro member states agree that someone based in Brussels or somewhere else should call the shots on budgets instead of national parliaments.” Macron also wants to have a set of social rights introduced at the European level, setting up standards for job training, health insurance, unemployment benefits, and the minimum wage. At the same time he would like to see closer cooperation on defense, security, and intelligence. In brief, he wants “more Europe” than perhaps even Orbán’s “bureaucrats in Brussels.”

So, when Tamás Ulicza in Magyar Hírlap claims that “Macron’s answers are the same as all the earlier unsuccessful attempts to date except only to a higher degree,” he is misrepresenting Macron’s position. In Ulicza’s view, the European Union is still heading toward the abyss. Macron’s election is only giving the leaders of the EU a false sense of security. Le Pen, Ulicza writes, almost certainly wouldn’t have led France out of the European Union, but “she wouldn’t have swept the existing problems under the carpet.” Macron lacks a political vision for his own country; “he can think only in terms of Europe,” he insists, although even Híradó, the official news that is distributed to all media outlets, fairly accurately reported on his plans for revitalizing the French economy. Macron proposes cuts to state spending, wants to ease the existing labor laws, and wants to introduce social protection for the self-employed.

Magyar Idők offered no substantive analysis of Macron’s economic or political ideas. The editors were satisfied with a partial reprinting of a conversation with György Nógrádi, the “national security expert,” a former informer during the Kádár period about whose outrageous claims I wrote several times. I especially recommend the post titled “The truth caught up with the ‘national security expert,’ György Nógrádi.” But at least Nógrádi did tell the television audience, accurately in this case, that Macron wants to reduce the size of the French government by letting 120,000 civil servants go.

Perhaps the most intriguing article appeared in the solidly pro-government Origo with the title “We are introducing the French Gyurcsány.” According to the unnamed journalist, “the career of the former banker and minister of economy eerily resembles the life and ideology of Ferenc Gyurcsány.” As we know, there is no greater condemnation in Orbán’s Hungary than comparing anyone to the former prime minister. What follows is a description of the two politicians’ careers, starting with both entering the political arena only after successful careers in business in the case of Gyurcsány and banking in the case of Macron. Both, the article continues, are followers of third-road socialism, following in the footsteps of Bill Clinton, Tony Blair, and Gerhard Schröder.

One thing is certain: both believe in an eventual United States of Europe. They believe there should be a European government with a prime minister and a strong parliament and a second chamber made up of the heads of the member states. “Neither of them stands by the idea of strong nation states.” The article claims that both men belittle the culture, history, and heritage of their own countries. Macron, for example, stands against the view that French culture is superior to all others. Mon dieu! And what did Gyurcsány say? In 2007, when Merkel visited Hungary, he told her that the Holy Crown’s place in not in the parliament. Macron has a disparaging opinion of boeuf bourguignon, a favorite of the French. Gyurcsány is guilty because “to this day he would take away the voting rights of Hungarians living in the neighboring countries.” And what was obviously his greatest sin: in a speech delivered in 2013 he said that “we [the democratic opposition] are the real patriotic heirs of St. Stephen.”

It is true that Ferenc Gyurcsány and his party, the Demokratikus Koalíció, are totally committed to the European Union. Only a few days ago DK organized a conference in which Frank Engel (EPP), Ulrike Lunacek (Greens), and Josef Weidenholzer (Socialists and Democrats) participated. DK’s slogan as a counterpoint to the “Stop Brussels!” campaign is “Let’s catch up with Brussels!” Gyurcsány would like to see a new European constitution, dual citizenship, joint border defense, and common social security. The final goal is a United States of Europe.

As far as Macron’s ideas on the economy are concerned, he seems to me a combination of Ferenc Gyurcsány and Lajos Bokros.

Of course, Viktor Orbán also wants to reform the European Union, but what he would like to achieve cannot be called “reform.” He would like to go backwards, taking away the present prerogatives of the European Commission and Parliament and giving more power to the 27 member states. The EU does need reform, but not the kind that Poland and Hungary are proposing. Macron might not succeed in everything he hopes to do, but he is correct in his belief that the solution lies in more, not less integration.

May 10, 2017